Vagabond Holes: David McComb & the Triffids + Beautiful Waste: Poems by David McComb

January 01, 1970

(Freemantle Press)

 

www.freemantlepress.com.au

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

Having been fortunate enough to see Australia’s Triffids in
concert in the late ‘80s, I can offer first-hand testimony to the band’s
musical prowess, and to frontman David McComb’s charisma, beyond just my
appreciation for their albums (recently given the full expanded/remastered
treatment by Domino, incidentally – 1986’s Born
Sandy Devotional
remains a must-own to any serious fan of music, Oz-spawned
or otherwise). McComb died unexpectedly in 1999, a number of years after the
demise of the Triffids, so to finally get to read a book about him and his band
is, for a fan, a much-needed means of assuaging the grief. A belated wake, if
you will, attended by those who loved the man, including those of us who
perhaps never knew him personally but still cared deeply.

 

To have, for the first time aside from album lyric sheets, a
collection of his poems is more than just icing on the cake; it’s receiving the
keys to the whole damn bakery.

 

With the 384-page Vagabond
Holes, e
ditors Coughran and Lucy make it clear upfront that this is no
narrative, chronological bio. Rather, it’s a compendium of remembrances and
appreciations, some in sketch form, others more analytical, and as both
McComb’s lyrics and the Triffids’ music was never presented in what one might
call “linear rock fashion” – imagine a mashup of Dylan and Townes Van Zandt,
Doors and Velvet Underground, late ‘70s NYC punk and old-time country-gospel
groups – the format serves the subject nicely. (Worth noting: the book
sprinkles in assorted McComb poems, and it’s additionally adorned with numerous
images, from never-before-seen photos of the band and McComb to the odd gig
poster and piece of artwork.)

 

There’s a reasonably satisfying celebrity-cameo quotient
here, for those of you inclined to rubberneck. The Church’s Steve Kilbey actually
turns up twice, with a poetic, stream of consciousness series of diary-like
entries entitled “Whack! Whack!”; and the more straightforward “Precious Spirit
Escapes,” phrased like a long poem or song lyric that will leave a lump in your
throat when you get to the part about Kilbey and the Go-Betweens’ Grant McLennan
watching (or is he imagining they are watching?) their old friend McComb
onstage in Sydney:

 

“they’re playing wide
open road at this moment

unbeknownst to them

this will be last gig
in Sydney for a
long long lifetime”

 

Speaking of the Go-Betweens, Robert Forster relates, with
great tenderness, a series of memorable encounters he had with McComb, and
recalls the time when, living in Germany, he got the news: “In 1999,
in the middle of the five years I will spend there, I hear that David has died.
It is distant news but brought into sharp relief through encounters and times
with him. I weigh this encounter trying to find a ledger in my heart and mind
of what he gave to me and what I gave in return. You do this when people die.
And I find myself in debt to David.”

 

Bad Seeds Nick Cave and Mick Harvey also turn up – respectively,
getting drunk with McComb and singing their favorite Beatles, Elvis and Klaatu
(?!?) songs together, and seeing McComb perform with some of his post-Triffids
groups.

 

Journalists, friends and Triffids members weigh in with
varying measures of emotion-soaked reflection and scholarly reserve in order to
express what McComb and the band meant to them, or what they think McComb and
the band meant. Two of the best chapters are penned by British writer David
Cavanagh (a wonderful account of falling under the spell of the Triffids in the
mid ‘80s and subsequently following them around London like a smitten puppy until
they befriend him) and Blurt contributor
Wilson Neate (a sprawling 20-page dissection – make that dissertation – of McComb and his influences, his cultural
background and his songwriting, along with some exceedingly insightful probings
of how the public and the critics perceived McComb’s words and music, aptly
titled “McComb’s Ambivalent Romanticism”).

 

Throughout, even in those entries that ostensibly focus upon
the Triffids, each respondent’s deep love and abiding respect for McComb comes
through the clearest. Which is as it should be; though fortunate enough to work
alongside gifted musicians with whom he was, not incidentally, very close,
McComb was the Triffids.

 

The concurrently published Beautiful Waste is an elegantly designed 112-page volume featuring
a raised cover image designed by the Triffids’ Martyn Casey, a lengthy intro by
Australian poet and novelist John Kinsella that probes and analyzes McComb’s
poetry, and a selection of over 50 unpublished poems that the two editors
became privy to during the course of assembling their book of essays. They
ordered the material into five general sections “around loosely shared themes
or objects: body parts, loss, love, nature [and] unmarked tracks.” As I’m not
necessarily the best judge of poetry or even versed (no pun intended) in the
poetic tradition, I’ll defer to Kinsella’s authority, who writes in his intro,
“It is almost bizarre that David McComb is not yet known as a significant
Australian poet.” With the publication of this book, perhaps the first steps
have finally been taking towards establishing McComb as just that.

 

I’m drawn, however, to these lines, as they seem, uncannily,
to capture something I was feeling recently when I made a return trip to my
hometown. If the mark of a true poet is to capture the essence of something
simultaneously personal and universal, then surely this is richness. From “The
Mistake of Returning”:

 

“I went back to the
neighbourhood

I knew when I was
young.

I waited until
midnight

and then retraced my
steps…

I was haunted by
certain embedded voices
.”

 

Ultimately, in both Vagabond
Holes
and Beautiful Waste, both
band and man live again. To paraphrase Robert Forster, we all find ourself in
debut to David.

 

Both books distributed
in America through Independent Publishers Group, www.ipgbook.com.

 

 

[Ed. note: Britain’s
Helter Skelter Books has announced it is publishing a Triffids book entitled
Save
What You Can: The Day of The Triffids and The Long Night of David McComb, by Australian journalist Bleddyn Butcher
(who also contributes to Vagabond Holes. The date keeps getting moved around,
but as things stand right now it’s slated for publication next August.]

 


 

 

 

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